The article presents the analysis of the possible ways to apply experimental methods and techniques to the study of prepositional semantics and the spatial scenes described by the meanings of spatial prepositions. Relying on the idea of polysemy of prepositions and the supposition that each of their meanings denotes a certain spatial scene, the author presents the results of the experimental study of the spatial meaning of the Russian preposition
Keywords: Prepositionmeaningspatial sceneprototypical scene
Experimental research in contemporary linguistic study of prepositional semantics
Contemporary linguistics has a wide range of techniques and methods of research among which experimental methods are of crucial importance. Almost any psycholinguistic study (Залевская, 2012) is characterized by the use of one or several of the following types of experiments: associative experiments, subjective definitions of word meanings, the method of semantic differential offered by Charles E. Osgood, the method of completion (it is when speakers are asked to complete a phrase or a sentence with one or several words, depending on the context), methods of indirect study of semantics, for example, detecting semantic distance, graded scaling, etc. The use of modern technologies, such as eye-tracking, fMRT, EEG and others, in experimental studies of mental and language representations of the different fragments of reality is also becoming increasingly popular. However, if the experimental methods, techniques and technologies mentioned above are used in the study of words and their semantics, they are mostly used in connection with notional words, while such semantically and functionally ambiguous lexical items as prepositions are often left beyond experimental research. Therefore, one of the goals of this research is to analyze the perspective of the use of experimental methods in the study of prepositional semantics.
Prepositions as language means of spatial relations’ representation
In many languages prepositions are an important lexical means that shows spatial relations between objects of reality. Despite the fact that prepositions have been an object of intensive study for several decades already, their meanings and functions still present many unsolved questions, especially if their semantic and functional features are compared across different languages (Aric, 2010; Senft, 2017). The title of the book by Lin Lougheed ‘the Great Preposition Mystery’ (Lougheed, 1981) describes the situation with the study of prepositions more precisely than anything: they were a mystery more than three decades ago when the book was first published and they are still a mystery now. Needless to say, that Russian prepositions are not an exception.
A prepositional meaning can contain significant information which indicates a segment of the space in which an object is located. If, for example, we compare such Russian prepositional phrases as
Speaking about prepositional semantics, many researchers agree that prepositions can be polysemous, having several distinct lexical meanings to denote relations between objects not only in different categories (space, time, cause-effect relations, part-whole relations, etc.), but also within one category, for instance, the category of space (Evans, 2010; 2013; Бороздина, 2013; Селиверстова, 2004). Besides, it is believed that the spatial meaning of a preposition is the one that gives rise to the development of non-spatial meanings of prepositions (Evans, 2010; 2013; Evans & Tyler, 2003; Gärdenfors, 2015).
Such diversity of points of view on the meanings of prepositions proves that prepositional semantics needs further study with the use of experimental methods which involve the participation of native speakers.
Prepositions, spatial scenes and their prototypes
Cognitive approach to the study of prepositions has thrown much light on the development of their meanings (Evans, 2010; 2013; Evans & Tyler, 2003), especially in the way which shows how prepositional meanings develop and transfer from spatial to non-spatial domains (Bennet, 1975; Gärdenfors, 2015). As a result of cognition and interaction with reality individuals conceptualize space in such a way that it is divided into segments which function as separate spatial scenes. It is supposed that a prepositional meaning corresponds to a separate spatial scene. Each spatial scene reflects a certain kind of relations between two objects and its mental representation is a concept. Afterwards the content of the spatial concept is transferred to non-spatial domains on the basis of similarity. Thus, cognitive-experiential approach offers a logical explanation of prepositional polysemy and the transference of their spatial meanings to non-spatial domains. Nevertheless, there are still unsolved tasks. We still need to find out which of the spatial meanings of polysemous prepositions is the basic one and, consequently, which of the spatial scenes expressed by its meaning is the prototypical one.
The experimental research of prepositional semantics and the corresponding spatial scenes is essential for the development of a number of theoretical issues: the study of the connection between language and cognition, the role of language in mental processes, cognition and conceptualization of spatial entities in one language and across different languages; development of polysemy within prepositions and the evolution of prototypical spatial scenes in course of time.
Besides, of special interest are issues connected with the analysis of the ways individuals conceptualize space and spatial entities. One of the interesting questions here is the interdependence between the age of an individual, his/her experience and the content of spatial concepts, prototypical spatial scenes, in particular.
Another problem which needs investigation is the semantics of the Russian preposition
Finally, the existing experimental methods and techniques need to be adjusted to the study of prepositions. In this research it is the completion method that is modified for the analysis of language and mental representations of spatial relations.
The research is aimed at finding out answers to the following questions:
if any of contemporary experimental methods and techniques used for the analyses of notional words can be applied to the study of prepositional semantics, the real spatial scenes they denote and the mental representations of the corresponding spatial relations;
if the completion method is applicable to the study of prepositions and what results it can give regarding prepositional semantics and usage;
if there is prototypical spatial scene for the given meaning of a preposition and the spatial relations it denotes;
if prototypical spatial scenes are subjected to any changes in course of time and what are the causes if such changes occur;
if there are any variations in the prototypical spatial scenes across different groups of speakers, such as different age groups.
Purpose of the Study
The study presents a brief description of the stages of the experimental research aimed at finding out the prototypical spatial scene which is connected with the spatial meaning of the Russian preposition
To achieve the goals mentioned above it is necessary to turn to the experiment which involves native Russian speakers. The chosen method is called the completion method which implies that the participants of the experiments should fill in the gaps in the phrase relying on the given context. Taking into consideration the fact that spatial prepositions usually express the relations between two objects (figure and ground) the participants of the experiment were given cards with two different Russian nouns in the nominative case (for example,
It was hypothesized that to complete the word combinations the participants of the experiment would choose the preposition which is most often used to express the spatial relations typical for the objects named by the given nouns. The participants were instructed to write down the first variant of the prepositional phrase which occurred to them.
The experiment consisted of two stages. On the first stage 36 native speakers of Russian aged from 18 to 24 (students of different departments of Kursk State University, Russia) participated in the experiment (Group 1). After the data received from Group 1 were analyzed there was another stage of the experiment in which 28 native Russian speakers aged from 45 to 65 (representatives of various professions and different social groups) took part (Group 2). The data received from the second group were analyzed and compared with the results of Group 1. The comparative analysis helped to find out whether there are any differences in the way individuals interpret the prototypical spatial scene denoted by the preposition
The analysis of the experimental data demonstrates that in both the groups most of the coincidences in the prepositions used to connect the two offered nouns occurred in the case when the participants had to fill in the gap between the words
As far as other pairs of nouns are concerned, the prepositions offered by the participants vary to a great degree. One of such variable cases was observed when the speakers had to fill in the gap between the words
The analysis of prepositional phrases offered by the Russian speakers showed that they had some difficulty in establishing the type of spatial relations between the objects denoted by the nouns
Such a variety of the prepositions used by the participants of Group 1 shows that in the mind of contemporary Russian speakers aged from 18 to 24 the spatial relation described by the prepositional phrase
The results of the experiment look more convincing and understandable if we consider the idea that prepositions do not only express the information about the spatial position of one object in relation to the other but that they are also used to denote functional connections between the two objects. The preposition
However, it is important to mention that quite different results were received from older Russian speakers (Group 2). A considerable number of individuals, that is 16 out of 28 (57%), joined the nouns
The results of the analysis of the experimental data show that the speakers of the second age group, having a different experience of cognition and interaction with reality, have a different view on the content of the prototypical spatial scene expressed by the meaning of the analyzed Russian preposition. In the mind of older Russian speakers there is a strong association with the previously popular models of TV-sets with a wide top surface which could function as a support for another object.
The present experimental research has brought us to a number of conclusions:
the image of the prototypical spatial scene that is stored in the mind of the speaker and that is evoked by a certain meaning of a preposition can vary depending on the age of the speaker and, correspondingly, on his/her experience of cognition and interaction with the world;
the spatial scene which is considered to be a prototypical one for this or that spatial meaning of a preposition can be substituted by another one in course of time if one of the objects involved in the spatial scene can no longer fulfil its function in relation with the other object (for example, if the object can no longer be a support for another object, such as the case for the Russian preposition
Moreover, the data received in this research give evidence in favour of a wider usage of experimental methods and techniques (the method of completion in particular) in the study of prepositions, especially those of the Russian language, and the spatial scenes they represent in the language and evoke in the mind.
Further research in this direction can be aimed at comparing the data received in the experimental study of spatial prepositions of other languages and the mental representations of prototypical spatial scenes stored in the mind of speakers of different languages.
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30 April 2018
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Sociolinguistics, linguistics, semantics, discourse analysis, translation, interpretation
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Borozdina, I. S. (2018). Experimental Research Of Prepositional Semantics And Prototypical Spatial Scenes. In & I. V. Denisova (Ed.), Word, Utterance, Text: Cognitive, Pragmatic and Cultural Aspects, vol 39. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 400-406). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2018.04.02.57